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A while ago, one Good Friday, I switched on the radio and the tape recorder and then left to walk the dog happily thinking I was recording the Bach Matthew passion. (A piece that Mendelssohn described as the greatest Christian work ever written.) I was surprised when listening later to find not Bach at all but a world premiere from St Johnís College of a Passion by Francis Grier. Now I am not a fan of twenty-first century music, itís generally far too squeaky for my taste, but as it was a new piece and I had, as it were, invested in the tape, I thought I would give it a go. Well I did not get very far but the Passion began with the scene at Bethany when Mary pours the jar of Nard over Jesusí feet and then wipes them with her hair. I like Grierís idea of beginning the Passion with the perfume. Not only because the anointing will reappear at the triumphal end of the story, so bracketing the piece, but also by opening with Jesus at Martha and Maryís house, she confirms and reminds us of the important place of women in the telling of the Passion.
You see once Jesus is arrested, the disciples disappear, they flee and in Peterís case he even denies that that he knows Jesus at all. They are all frightened but the small crowd at the foot of the cross was mostly women, Mary Magdalene, Mary his mother, Elizabeth her sister and Mary wife of Clopas.
And it is Mary Magdalene who goes on that first day of the week, so early in the morning that it was yet dark to visit the tomb. I have often thought that there ought to be a painting of Mary and Salome on the way to the tomb, bent close together for comfort, walking softly through the streets perhaps with a lantern casting a soft glow over their mourning. Making the discovery of the empty tomb, Mary, we are told in another Gospel, rushes to Simon Peter and we suppose John with the news. They are disbelieving (both Luke and Mark are explicit about this) and rush themselves to make sure to see with their own eyes.
In those days the accounts even of the most respectable women were not thought reliable. In the eyes of Jewish law, a woman was considered a minor, an irresponsible person, so much so that a husband could refuse to acknowledge any agreement she had made. Even in the most exceptional cases, her evidence was not accepted by any court. Yet Jesus chose to tell and appear to Mary Magdalene first. Why, we might ask, should that be?
Well, just think what credibility that gives to the whole story. There is never any reason for Mary to invent such a tale, she would gain absolutely nothing from it, for in essence no-one need believe her and she could not even be called as a witness. As Jesusí birth was announced to shepherds, so his resurrection is announced to Mary Magdalene, a woman and, by reputation at least, not so respectable either. There is consistency; Jesusí love for the poor, the dispossessed, the ordinary people, is there throughout, from the very beginning to the very end. It is the voices of these people that give life, texture and truth to the story of Jesusí ministry and no voices more so than those of the women he meets. We can feel with Mary as she anoints Jesusí feet, we can empathise with the group around the cross wretched with grief, we can sense the hole in Maryís stomach as she discovers the stone rolled away and finally we can share the joy the ecstasy and the wonder of discovering that Jesus is alive!
We can run with her to tell the disciples, for we are part of the story. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a resurrection for us all, from this moment forward, the church begins and its message of love, reconciliation and eternal life will spread to the ends of the earth. The message of Easter becomes the divine meeting the ordinary; Jesus, resurrected and appearing to Mary Magdalene.
Yes, I think Francis Grier had something to say in beginning with the jar of Nard. For there was a story of overwhelming love and discipleship and here on Easter Day another Mary is loving and humble and then overwhelmed; overwhelmed with joy and excitement and an urge to embrace. Her testimony rings down the ages
ďI have seen the LordĒ